By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Virginia lawmakers seeking a reduction in the expected $3.8 billion budget deficit have a challenging task ahead of them. Since most agree that maintaining the educational needs of Virginia's children is a top priority, as is strengthening the state's infrastructure, it is critical to identify other areas for budget cuts.
According to a new Sentencing Project report, cash-strapped states all over the country are making reductions in their corrections budgets because of decreasing prison populations and renewed interest in alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. More states recognize the benefits to providing drug treatment instead of prison for low-level drug offenders and community treatment and services for the mentally ill instead of jail time.
Expensive mandatory minimum sentences lock up more offenders and for longer periods of time, holding many far beyond their crime prone years. Precious taxpayer dollars should be used to protect public safety by saving expensive prison beds for dangerous violent offenders and providing rehabilitative services to those individuals who can gain from treatment and community supervision.
The Governor's office and many state legislators see an answer to the budget crisis in closing some of Virginia's state prisons. Already the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center and the Southampton Intensive Treatment Center have been suggested as correctional facilities likely to get the axe because of underutilization and poor performance.
Lawmakers should not stop there. Eliminating a $3.8 billion deficit requires major belt tightening, and with a surplus of 2,000 empty prison cells, the corrections department is the place to do it. State Senator Kenneth Stolle agrees, and says that the state will need to eliminate one or even two additional prisons.
Virginia's problems begin long before the current budget crises. When Virginia lawmakers eliminated parole in the mid-1990's and begin legislating longer sentences for lesser crimes, they projected a need for --and began building --more prisons. What they did not realize is that crime is more related to age variations in the population than the number of prisons or the severity of punishment meted out by the state
When the offspring of baby boomers passed through their crime prone years, the crime rate plummeted in the late 1990's, leaving Virginia with expensive prisons to maintain and a lot of empty cells. Virginia scrambled to fill the cells with out-of-state inmates to recover some of the costs, but kept on building.
Virginia's lawmakers have an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. If they choose to close the supermax facility at Wallens Ridge in Wise County, they can significantly reduce the budget deficit while ridding Virginia of a facility that has become a national embarrassment. Plagued by scandal, investigations, litigation and abusive practices, Wallens Ridge has proven to be an extremely bad investment for Virginia and its taxpayers.
Building Wallens Ridge in 1999 as a sister facility to Red Onion State Prison in Pound was overkill. Both institutions provide super-maximum security confinement and consistently operate under capacity. Each facility houses prisoners from other states yet the Department of corrections is still incapable of filling all of the extra beds.
In addition, the conditions in these prisons are indefensible. Just three weeks ago, three Wallens Ridge correctional officers were indicted for beating a prisoner, and their captain was charged with trying to cover it up. Unfortunately, this incident is only the latest in a series of violations and inhumane conduct. Two mentally ill Connecticut prisoners died at Wallens Ridge in recent years. One of these deaths occurred after the prisoner was repeatedly shocked with a stun gun and then placed in restraints. Since then, Connecticut and Wyoming have removed all of their prisoners from Wallens Ridge.
This solution makes financial as well as criminal justice sense. Virginia has an important opportunity to reform its criminal justice system and end a budget crisis.
Closing Wallens Ridge will not only help to solve the budget crisis but will eliminate a troubled facility that has become an embarrassment to the Commonwealth.